Saturday, December 19, 2009

Water Filters & Bucket Baths: Welcome to the Peace Corps!

The Peace Corps calls these first weeks at our new sights the “settling in period.” We’ve been warned about them by friends we may have known who had served in the PC and we heard about the period during training. We tried to get ourselves ready for the big transition, but is there anything one can do to fully prepare themselves for the challenges that come with these first days and weeks at our new sites?

For me settling in has involved a lot of homesickness. I never lived abroad before and during college was only 45 minutes away from home. Living alone in a house on an island in the South Pacific makes me homesick, and I’m not afraid to mention it, or discuss it. It is natural. What I have found to be important is how I deal with it. Do I stay locked up in my room all day or do I take the opportunity to make connections with people in my new village and make new friends?

I’ve chosen to be proactive because I figure I should make the best out of this amazing experience. For the past 10 days I’ve been taking walks and meeting with village leaders like the church pastor and local mayor. I’ve already gone to the plantation to help carry back coconuts. I’ve gone swimming in the ocean and been to two different church functions. I’ve played volleyball with the locals and have dinned with my neighbors. I’ve also shown them how to play different card games and they love it.

Once I’m back home in 24 months, I’m unlikely to ever have the chance to do something as unique as moving to another country of the world and just setting up shop! As hard as it may be on some days to motivate myself to do these different things, I realize that if I don’t jump in for the full experience now, I may regret it when I’m on the tarmac getting ready to take off in December of 2011. The tone I set now has a lot to do with my tone for the next two years!

With that being said, there are many challenges I’ve had to take on this past week. They are not all unique to me, as Peace Corps Volunteers around the world probably have situations much worse than I do. Nevertheless, my struggles are real for me because this is my life and nobody else’s.

For example, the first two days I didn’t have a stove. I didn’t need the stove for food, because I was eating peanut butter and jelly, but I did need it to boil water. So this is where I started making friendships. I went to my neighbor’s house and asked if she would boil some water for me. She did, and then sent me home with an electric pot to boil water in. I returned it a few days later once I found a stove.

The first night I didn’t have a soft mattress, but rather was sleeping on a traditional Samoan bed, which is a woven mat. I tried to look at this experience as being one with the Samoans. Was it a little uncomfortable? Yes. Did I start to get use to it? Yes, and that is what started to scare me, so I eventually found a foam mattress which is working fine.

What about a refrigerator, how important is that? Not as important as a bed and stove and therefore, that is why I have just purchased one, 10 days after moving to my site. But I learned that if the power ever goes out, I can survive without it, and many Samoan do as well year round. It will be nice to have it at my house so that I can eat healthier foods, but I’ve survived without it, so no worries.

I still don’t have running water in the house, but I’ve been getting use to that as well. I’ve been getting my water from the school compounds drinking pipe. I fill a jug of water and then take it in and run it through the filter and then boil it. It tastes rather good, although I miss it being cold, but that soon can be fixed with my fridge arriving. I’ve been taking bucket baths which I learned how to do during training, so I feel like I’m using what I’ve learned. Some days I forget what a hot shower feels like, but who would want a hot shower when it’s 88 degrees out and humid?

There are also other little things that can play mind tricks with me and try to wear me down. I have cockroaches in my house for example and a few spiders now and then. At first they freak me out because I’m not use to them, but there aren’t lightning bugs here so maybe those would startle a Samoan. Samoans don’t flinch when they see a cockroach. I’m getting better and more aggressive, but it’s all part of the experience. It is the price I pay for living in a tropical paradise.

Overall this settling in period has been about learning to be flexible and have a good sense of humor. It has been about finding solutions to my problems. If I don’t have string to suspend my mosquito net, I can use duck tape. If I can’t get a cell phone signal at my village, I can ride 20 minutes on my bike around the mountain to get a great view of the ocean and a halfway decent signal.

I’m learning a lot about myself here in Samoa. I’m learning I can go without some of the stuff I took for granted back in the United States. It is hard some days, but that makes this experience all the more meaningful.

On that note, I would like to wish everyone a Merry Christmas. I hope that your holidays are filled with happy memories and safe travels. Please know that I’ll be thinking about you and wishing you the happiest New Year!

Wednesday, December 9, 2009

One Word: Unbelievable

This is one of those stories you can tell again and again and you never get tired of sharing it, because it restores your faith in the goodwill of mankind.
Today was my swearing in ceremony and I was looking forward to traveling out to my site tomorrow to get settled in at my new village. A group of us decided to go to Italiano’s, a great pizza place downtown in Apia, for our last meal together before heading out tomorrow. After eating, I had to separate from the group to go pick up some groceries at the store. Now that I am an official Peace Corps Volunteer, I felt this new sense of independence and was in a great mood. I waved down a taxi out front of Italiano’s and asked to be taken to Farmer Joe’s Grocery. I made a good effort to communicate with the taxi driver in Samoan. I was asking him how his night was and where he lived, etc. I could tell he was pleased I knew some Samoan. Before long I was at the store and shopping. I went to call my friend Emilie because I had a question about something she had asked me to pick up for her. That is when I realized I didn’t have my cell phone with me. My heart sank.
At first I thought it must have been back in my room at the hotel and I had just forgotten it there, but I was almost positive I had it when we went to eat. I finished my shopping and took another taxi back to the hotel. Back there I started looking around my room and a friends room who I had been in before leaving. I used another volunteer’s phone to start dialing my own number in hopes I would hear it ring, or at least someone else would pick it up. There were two possibilities at that point: it was either at Italiano’s or in a taxi somewhere in Apia!
I had the hotel call Italiano’s. No luck. Then I was almost certain where it was: in the taxi. I started calling it again, and again. Every time I called without an answer, I kept thinking about how bad the timing was the night before leaving for my site. It made me so mad at myself.
Finally I was with a few of my friends in their room and told them that I would try sending one text message in Samoan, asking that they return the cell phone to the hotel. Just as I was about to start typing the text message, my friends phone rang! It was my number!!!! I answered and a man said, "Is this your phone?" I said "yes." I was so excited I could barely talk. I asked him if he could bring it to the hotel, fa’amolemole (please). He said he would. I said fa’afetai (thank you) and told him that I would be waiting by the road.
I ended the call and started jumping up and down like a kid on Christmas morning. This was my Samoa miracle story. I rushed next door to the K.K. Mart (local convenience store) and bought a can of Coke for the taxi driver. I went out front and waited for him. One taxi pulled over thinking I wanted a ride. I couldn’t remember if it was him so I said, "Do you have my phone?" He looked puzzled so I knew I had the wrong one. I continued waiting and then saw a taxi slow to a crawl and put their blinder on.
He pulled in and was holding my phone out the window with a great big grin on his face. I said fa’afetai (thank you) several times and handed him the can of Coke, along with 5 tala, which is a couple tala more than my original cab fare. He had a look of satisfaction on his face and he knew he had done a good deed. He deserved to be praised. What were the chances? He could have easily kept the phone, given the phone away, sold the phone, or just thrown it in the trash. He took the time to drive it over to me. I said, "Manuia le po!" (Have a good night!)
After telling all my friends the good news and phenomenal story I decided to check to see if he or anyone else had used any minutes from the phone to make personal calls. There was only one minute gone from the phone, the one minute he used to call me and tell me he had the phone! I was so delighted and pleased.
Tonight, being the eve of a big transition, reminded me that I am in the right place with good people who care about others. This isn’t to say that another taxi driver wouldn’t have made another decision, or that I don’t need to be vigilant. Rather, this demonstrates a link that exists in the human race throughout the world. This is a link of friendship, concern and goodwill towards others.
I learned a lot tonight, and perhaps more than I did during all of my cross cultural lessons during pre-service training. Tonight was unscripted, unplanned and completely real. It made me feel good, and I hope it made the taxi driver feel good.
Although it doesn’t feel like the holiday season for me here in Samoa, I know the commercial blitz is in full swing back home. Can you all do me a favor and remember this story, or another one like it the next time people start to get too drawn into the marketing by big name brands. Take some time this holiday to remember that there is a lot of good that goes on every day, and in every country, by people of every color of skin and of every language and ethnicity. These types of stories are happening around the world, and they need to be recognized because they are what can bring you true holiday cheer! Merry Christmas!

What Exactly Are You Doing In Samoa?

Because today is my swearing in ceremony as an official volunteer into the United States Peace Corps, I thought it would be a good time to explain in more detail exactly what I will be doing during my 24 remaining months of service.

Peace Corps has been serving in Samoa since 1967 when the United States sent volunteers here to assist after a devastating cyclone that struck the country. Since then, there have been 81 groups of volunteers to come and serve in many different areas. I am one of 20 volunteers, from Group 82, who arrived in October to work in the School Based Community Development Program. This is a new program that Peace Corps has begun in Samoa and thus my group has the challenges and rewards that are associated with being "pioneers" of a new program.
I have just completed 9 weeks of pre-service training where I was living with the other 19 members of my group in a small village. Each volunteer was assigned to live with a host family from the village. They provided our meals and living accommodations. This was a great cultural learning experience as we were interacting with them on a daily basis. During this time we were also undergoing intense language instruction, as well as training in teaching, medical, safety, and cross-cultural issues.

The project is two pronged. First of all, I will be co-teaching with Samoan teachers in English classes in a rural primary school. During my time at the school, I will be working closely with the Samoan teachers to develop lesson plans for each class. My duties will require that I travel to different classrooms and teach at different grade levels. I have been assigned to teach at a smaller school with about 85-90 students.

Another part of the teaching component requires that I design and implement several in-service workshops for teachers to demonstrate new teaching strategies for TESL (Teaching English as a Second Language). These in-service workshops won’t take place until my second year of service.
Therefore, about 20-25 hours of my work week will be devoted to teaching responsibilities. That includes classroom time, classroom preparation such as lesson planning, and any other duties such as teacher meetings or planning for in-services during the second year of service.
The second prong of my service in Samoa is a Community Development component. With this assignment, I will be working within the village to identify their local needs which will help enhance their village improve their livelihoods. Some development projects that volunteers might work on would be water tanks, homework centers, community gardens, sewing business, recycling projects etc. When I’m working with the community, I will be looking for projects which are sustainable after I leave. Peace Corps world wide has a philosophy of helping others to help themselves. I wouldn’t be much of an asset to my village if I went in and did all the work for them and then left in two years, because they wouldn’t have learned how to keep the projects going after I am gone, or be aware of how to implement new projects. Therefore, there is a large emphasis placed on us "working together." I will be devoting about 15-20 hours per week on the community development portion of my service.

In addition to both of my duties of teaching and the village development, Peace Corps in Samoa has asked us to work on health related issues. Samoa has a need for health education on topics such as washing hands, safe food preparation, nutrition and diabetes. Thus we will be working to integrate health awareness into our service projects.

During my service I will have access to many great resources. There is a great staff working at Peace Corps here in Samoa. The Country Director knows all of us and has encouraged us to ask him or any other members of the staff for assistance along the way. The Associate Peace Corps Director will also be working with us closely to make sure our projects are running smoothly. In addition, there are other members of the staff who can assist us with cultural issues that may arise, and we have a great safety and security officer and medical officer to help keep us safe and healthy.

We of course have each other to use as resources since there are 20 of us with different backgrounds and experience from all different geographic locations of the U.S. There are also dozens of other volunteers who were already in the country serving when we arrived and will be here for at least another year. Asking for their advice and assistance is a valuable resource as well and it is great to consider them friends on this exciting journey.

In order to complete our community development projects we will be working with members of our village to raise the money through different means. This may involve fund raisers or writing grants to aid donors for their assistance.

I hope this outline has given a better picture of what I have been asked to do during my time in Samoa. It will be a learning experience for myself as I make the journey. I feel I have a lot I can offer and the motivation to help make a difference. There will be tough and challenging days, but there will be those small moments which will bring me a lot of satisfaction and remind me why I’ve come here to serve. As they say in the Peace Corps, "It’s the toughest job you’ll ever love."

Monday, December 7, 2009

String Theory

Before I left for Samoa, I had a lot of packing to do. I had some luggage to use for my trip, but was offered by my friend, Katy Nykamp, a large backpack which she had used when she traveled to South Africa several years ago as a Peace Corps Volunteer. Before I left I went over to her house to pick up the backpack. She laughed when she saw this old faded purple piece of string attached to the front of the backpack. She explained to me that it was a string that Peace Corps gave to volunteers to help show unity among the group and make the bags stand out at the airport. At the time I was in a daze and wasn’t sure what she meant, so what I heard her say was:"PeaceCorpsgivesvolunteersapieceofstringtohelpshowunityamongthegroupandmakethebagsstandoutattheairport.
Katy had been such a huge help in my preparations before leaving and I have a lot of respect for her, knowing that she completed her full 27 months of service. She encouraged me to do this and realized long before I did, the challenges I would face. She had been were I was going. I ended up taking the luggage and saying my goodbyes to her a couple nights before I left for Samoa. I didn’t give a second thought about that old purple string until a few days later.

During the last hours of our staging event in Los Angles, just before we were about to depart for the airport for our international flight, one of the staff members went to the front of the room and was holding a wad of yellow string. She explained to our group that all Peace Corps Volunteers throughout the world have a tradition of receiving a piece of string to tie to their luggage as a way of forming a symbolic tie with all the other volunteers we would be traveling with, and as a practical measure for retrieving luggage at the baggage claim. I grabbed my three pieces of yellow string and walked over to my luggage to attach them. When I got to Katy’s old backpack, I decided to cut her purple string off and make the bag my own. I was about to throw her string away when I decided to tuck it inside my suitcase.

I let the string sit for the first two weeks I was here in Samoa. On my third week when I was in our training village, I began to become very homesick and was looking for strength and needed encouragement. I remembered that I had kept Katy’s string, so I dug inside my suitcase and sure enough, there it was, hidden at the bottom of my suitcase. I took it out and laid it on the table. I thought to myself about how hard it must have been for Katy during her two years of service, yet she had such a great experience that she had encouraged me to take part in the same challenges and triumphs. I thought about other Peace Corps around the world who had a piece of string tied to their backpacks and suitcases and about the same challenges they must have been facing that very same day. I also thought about the returned Peace Corps Volunteers like Katy, who still had their old luggage packed away in an attic or basement with their stings still attached. I felt a part of something larger and greater than my own individual problems of homesickness. I felt a part of a family who serves through challenges and successes because they want to do something great.

Little did I know the day I received Katy’s luggage, the impact that little piece of string would have on me. I still have that string, and when I get out to my house this week, I plan on putting it someplace safe. I’m keeping it nearby to look at again on those challenging days which I know will come again. It will remind me of her service and the service of thousands of other volunteers throughout the world. It’s something I like to call the string theory.